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Language families

Denmark

A geographically small country with a population of around 5 million, Denmark was once home to dozens of dialects of Danish.

Today the language can be broadly divided into five dialects. The Jutlandic dialects are spoken on the mainland, and comprise Southern Jutlandic, Western Jutlandic and Eastern Jutlandic.

Insular Danish is spoken on the islands towards the east, including in the capital, Copenhagen.

Bornholm Danish is spoken on the small island of Bornholm, nestled between Sweden and Poland.

Sweden

Despite its larger land area, Swedish dialects show more homogenity than Danish ones do traditionally. However, its geography has also allowed several unique languages, such as Elfdalian, to survive.

Skåne in the far south of Sweden was historically part of Denmark. Traces of Danish can still be found in modern Southern Swedish dialects, which share a guttural r sound with Danish.

The remote far north of the country was historically a Sámi-speaking area, although today Swedish is the dominant language of all parts of Sweden.

Finland

The principal language of Finland is Finnish, which can be roughly split into western (blue) and eastern (purple) groups. There are only minor differences in vowels and rhythm between the dialects, and speakers have no problem understanding each other.

There has traditionally been a strong Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, concentrated around the mid-western and southwestern coasts, and the archipelago (which includes semi-autonomous Åland).

Finland is also home to other Finno-Ugric languages, such as the Sámi dialects spoken in the far north, and Meänkieli.

Norway

Norway has a reputation for having an unusually large number of distinct dialects. Perhaps due to its mountainous geography and relatively recent urbanisation, the dialects have remained strong.

In fact, Norwegians have never conclusively come around one standard form of Norwegian. The language has two written standards – bokmål and nynorsk – distinct from the dozens of regional dialects, which can be roughly grouped into east (green) and west (turquoise).

Finno-Ugric Sámi dialects are also spoken by a minority in the far north of the country.

Faroe Islands

A self-governing nation within the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroe Islands have long retained their own distinct language: Faroese. Despite only having 72,000 speakers, there are several dialectal differences preserved by the nation’s island geography.

Written Faroese strongly resembles modern Icelandic, albeit with a much stronger Danish bent. Faroese somewhat bridges the gap between Scandinavian dialects like west Norwegian, and Icelandic, which is highly distinct from its mainland cousins.

Danish is widely spoken as a second language in the islands still to this day.

Iceland

Settlers from the west of Norway discovered Iceland in the 8th century, bringing their dialects of Old Norse with them.

Icelandic is famous for having preserved most of the grammatical features of Old Norse, more than any other Nordic language. It has a reputation for “purity”, and while it’s true that it has relatively few loanwords, it has evolved significantly since Old Norse.

Iceland had no indigenous population before settlement. It was part of the Kingdom of Denmark for centuries, but gained full independence in 1944. Fiercely proud of their native language, Icelanders never fully embraced Danish and it never gained a foothold in the country.

Greenland

Like the Faroe Islands, Greenland is a self-governing nation within the Kingdom of Denmark. As most of the country is covered by a thick ice sheet, settlements hug the coast.

Greenlandic has three principal dialects: western Greelandic (spoken in the capital, Nuuk), eastern Greelandic and north Greelandic, or Inuktun. The differences can be so great that the dialects are sometimes not mutually intelligible. They belong to the Eskimo-Aleut family, which includes other Inuit languages spoken in North America.

Danish has traditionally been the language of administration in the country, although Greenlandic has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years and the country discovers its national identity.

North Germanic

Danish

Swedish

Norwegian

Faroese

Icelandic